Objective: To evaluate the subjective experience of the COVID-19 outbreak in healthy older adults and develop a model of the older population’s psychological adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Methods: A qualitative grounded theory approach was taken to the study design and analysis, using semi-structured interviews to collect data from 19 community-active Italian older people by telephone during the first wave of COVID-19 (May 2020). Results: The theory emerging from the study conceptualized the COVID-19 subjective experience in older people as an adjustment process to the disruption of habits, social contacts, and routines that prompted a meaning-making process to face this adverse experience. Three emergent categories included ‘loss, uncertainty, and distress’ as the psychological impact of the pandemic emergency, ‘making sense of COVID-19’ as a subjective sense-making process of the pandemic, and ‘living with the pandemic’ as agency and self-management within the pandemic experience. The resulting narratives encompassed themes, i.e. risk perception, representation of the self, connection with past-time memories, and compliance with safety measures. Conclusion: The results have implications for designing effective messages to promote hope, social responsibility, and commitment in aging during the COVID-19 pandemic and for health workers who wish to support the psychological health of older adults
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